Tips for Building an Academic Vocabulary

The English language arts portion of the Common Core State Standards describes academic vocabulary as words found mostly in academic texts. Academic vocabulary often crops up in classroom discussions and appears in instructions; it’s not usually the kind of words children use in their everyday conversations. Most teachers agree that building a robust academic vocabulary is vital for student success in all subject areas.

Developing such a vocabulary partly comes from comprehensive reading and writing. Teachers and students can use specific steps (and a few online tools) to build their academic vocabulary.

Online Technology

Several Web tools can help teachers and students develop their vocabulary; most are free. Here are some helpful examples:

  • Padlet. This website works on the same principle as putting sticky notes on a classroom bulletin board. Teachers embed required vocabulary words into a webpage and students contribute their definitions via digital sticky notes. Free.
  • ThingLink. Teachers can build images into word definitions and enhance learning by associating images with definitions. Free; registration is required.
  • Flashcard Stash. Teachers can post the definitions of words used in class reading assignments. The interface works like a traditional flashcard game. Word links also can point to images that demonstrate the proper use of the words. Free.

Direct Instruction

Though online tools can be an excellent resource, direct instruction remains the best way to help students increase their academic vocabulary. Here are six techniques promoted by the Colorado Springs School District.

  • Provide students with a definition or description of the vocabulary word.
  • Have students restate the definition in their own words.
  • Ask students to draw a picture or create a graphic that expresses the definition.
  • Provide activities for students to use the new words. For example, have them create new sentences or paragraphs using the new words. Making up analogies using the new words can also be fun.
  • Divide students into groups to discuss the words, using them in context and creating stories with them.
  • Play games with the words such as crossword puzzles or games like Jeopardy! and create questions and answers using the new vocabulary words.

Learning Words in Tiers

Vocabulary tiers help students build on their existing knowledge of commonly used words. The tier technique helps students relate new words to situations they already know, which increases comprehension. Words can be categorized into three tiers:

  • Tier 1: Commonly used and known words. Generally words have only one meaning.
  • Tier 2: Less-common words found in ordinary texts and across the curriculum. Often referred to as “general academic words.” A single word in Tier 2 may have multiple meanings.
  • Tier 3: Rarely used words that students need to learn within specific subject matter. Tier 3 words appear in subject matter texts and must be learned in the context of the lesson. Examples include “isotope” for chemistry or “peninsula” for geography.
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